Shayla McAllister's 18th birthday was approaching fast.
A foster child since she was 4, McAllister would soon leave the foster care system, her main support network. Though she dreamed of owning a car and becoming a physical therapist, her prospects seemed dim: According to one study, about 50% of former foster children without some kind of support end up homeless.
But McAllister beat the odds. Since March, she has been living in a remodeled duplex in South Los Angeles, thanks to a transitional housing program for young adults who leave the system.
At the shelter's official grand opening Wednesday, McAllister proudly showed her apartment to a group of community leaders and others who helped raise funds for the duplex, including actor Steve Guttenberg.
McAllister said the shelter saved her from a life of terrible uncertainty. "It would have been rough on me," she said. "Everyday, I'd be worried about where I'd sleep."
The two-bedroom duplex that houses McAllister and two other young women is part of a larger program that aims to help former foster children build self-sufficient lives. In bureaucratic jargon, these young adults have been "emancipated" from foster care. The units were purchased and remodeled with about $380,000 in federal funds and contributions from Guttenberg and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
The opening was held in part to raise awareness of the need for more funding. About 1,000 children annually "age out of the system," but the county only has 230 transitional housing beds. Fifty-five more units are planned.
"These apartments will serve as a vital transitional home for youth that were denied a traditional parental home," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke in a statement.
"Emancipated foster youth never could celebrate things like this coming Sunday, Father's Day, the way most kids do. But a caring partnership is here to help them become self-sufficient adults."
In addition to the subsidized shelter, youths are given life-skills training, help in finding employment and child-care allowances. The housing assistance is offered for up to 18 months. The youths contribute a portion of their incomes toward the rent, but at the end of the program their contribution is returned to them so they can help pay for new housing.
"It's all about giving people opportunity," said Guttenberg, who helped raise $50,000 for the duplex. "They want to make something of their lives."
McAllister has already started saving a portion of her pay as a retail clerk for a car, and plans to start college in the fall. The apartment, with its marble floors and cherrywood finishes, provides a bit of luxury in her life.
And the lifelong South Los Angeles resident doesn't notice the constant noise of airplanes passing overhead en route to Los Angeles International Airport. The shelter is in an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County bordering Inglewood.
"This is one of the nicest places I've ever lived," she said.
McAllister's roommates also are working hard toward their goals. Felicia Harris, an immigrant from Belize, works as a clerk at USC and wants to get a degree in business administration. Another roommate, who gives her name only as Angela, is a beautician.
Angela, like McAllister, also was placed in foster care when she was 4. By the time she left the system, Angela had lived in six different foster homes. Though she is now 19 and eager to finally be on her own, the shelter is a much-needed steppingstone, she said.
"The nice thing about this program is that it prepares you for being on your own rather than being just thrown out at 18," she said. "I truly believe I am blessed."